'The Walking Dead' Executive Producer Reflects on Casting Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes

Longtime executive producer Gale Anne Hurd says The Walking Dead struggled with finding its Rick Grimes — until she screened an audition by classically-trained British thespian Andrew Lincoln.

"I remember calling up [original showrunner] Frank Darabont and saying, 'God, there's something to this guy.' At that point, we didn't even know if we would be able to find our Rick Grimes. It was that serious," Hurd told EW at San Diego Comic-Con this weekend.

"We had already cast Jon Bernthal, because we knew we had our Shane Walsh, and then when we brought [Andrew] over to the US and did that initial test in Frank's garage, in the car, in Frank's garage. And that's when we said, 'Oh my God, we have our Rick Grimes.' And who thought it was gonna be this [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]-trained UK actor, that we only knew from [Love Actually]. Literally, people thought we were nuts."

"So did I," Lincoln chimed in, laughing. "Crazy."

"And I remember thinking, you know, we know how fantastic he is, but it's really important — 'How are we going to sell this to a US audience that only knows him from Love Actually?' And I remember how important it was finding that first image of you, and getting that out, and coming to Comic-Con, because this is that journey. We were here nine years ago, not knowing how the fans were gonna accept their beloved comic book coming to life. And as you probably all know, Andy can't watch the promos or the clips or the show, but you heard the applause."

"It was a really special moment," Lincoln added. "That's why I think coming full circle, being here now, is so emotional, because it began here. That's when we got the first validation, I think."

"Yeah, because you know, the fans were worried, 'Are we gonna screw it up?'" Hurd recalled.

"That was a big Stetson I had to fill, you know what I'm saying? That's a small British head right there," Lincoln joked of his Stetson-hat-sporting sheriff's deputy.

"And now he wants to be a better husband and father, and we can only wish him the best as he continues that journey," Hurd said. "He's sacrificed so much for all of us, for the fans, and for the show, that while it's bittersweet, it is TWD Family forever."

Lincoln confirmed his looming exit from the series after nearly nine seasons during The Walking Dead's Hall H panel Friday at Comic-Con.

"This will be my last season playing the part of Rick Grimes," Lincoln said, adding, "I love this show. It means everything to me. I love the people who make this show... I'm particularly fond of the people who watch the show. You people. This has been the most extraordinary, amazing, and beautiful experience of my career."

Asked what was next for Lincoln during a fan Q&a, the 44-year-old father of two answered he was "going to take a break for a while."

Despite stepping away from Rick Grimes after nine years, Lincoln said during the panel "a sort of large part of me will always be a machete-wielding, Stetson-wearing, zombie-slaying sheriff's deputy from London, England."

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The Walking Dead returns with its season 9 premiere Sunday, October 7 on AMC.